Af-Pak chessboard waits for Trump’s moves

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Operation Enduring FreedomSpeculation has begun about how US President-elect Donald J Trump will make his moves on the Af-Pak chessboard when he occupies the White House from 20 January.

Will he honour the commitments made by the outgoing Obama presidency? Will the US remain engaged in Afghanistan with its 8,400 troops staying put there with no end in sight to the threat the Ashraf Ghani government faces from the Taliban?

If Trump really withdraws the remaining US troops from Afghanistan on the pretext of saving US taxpayers’ money, in accordance with his policy outlined during the Republican election campaign, that will amount to accepting one of the major demands of religious extremists.

The extremist forces have always been of the view that Afghanistan must be left to the Afghans with no interference from outside the country. But that will mean certain demise of the democratically elected government headed by Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. No government in Kabul, without the Taliban being its part, can survive in the absence of any effective external military help.

Even when the US troops, whatever their number, are there to assist the Afghanistan government, its writ hardly runs beyond Kabul, the national capital. Kabul, too, has never been safe 100 percent fromattacks by the Taliban and other extremist groups like the Islamic State. They will make the survival of the Ghani government almost impossible. Such a scenario may lead to chaos and lawlessness all over the landlocked country, with extremists calling the shots again. This will mean all the investments in terms of men and material made by the US and many other countries going waste. Is the US ready for such a denouement?

The US was knee-deep in the quagmire called Afghanistan when President Barack Obama of the Democratic Party captured power in November 2008. As per his electoral promise, President Obama withdrew most of the US troops from Afghanistan as also from Iraq to save his country’s economy from slipping into difficult straits. Yet the Obama administration provided heavy financial aid to Afghanistan with some of its troops remaining stationed there to ensure that the extremists did not derail the fragile administration in Kabul.

The present Afghanistan government, as also the previous one headed by Hamid Karzai, has been insisting that the US must maintain its military presence in the war-torn country in the interest of peace and stability in the region. That is one reason why the US not only retained its partial presence in Afghanistan but also made all kinds of efforts to eliminate the Taliban. However, it miserably failed to achieve this objective, resulting in a major change in Washington’s Taliban policy.

The redesigned Afghanistan policy of the US had it that Taliban factions should be approached for a dialogue for peace with a view to inviting them to join the government with certain conditions.

The talks for the purpose were held outside Afghanistan, in Qatar, but without success. After the formation of the Ghani government talks began again with Taliban commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of the Hizb-e-Islami, resulting in his organisation agreeing to join the regime in Kabul. There is now the likelihood other Taliban factions also getting ready to be associated with the government.

Extremists have always been of the view that Afghanistan must be left to the Afghans with no interference from outside the country

Apparently, this may prove to be helpful in establishing peace in Afghanistan, though some observers say that it is not wise to expect too much from Hekmatyar, once called The Butcher of Kabul.

Efforts may also be made to rope in the Taliban’s Haqqani group despite the fact that its entry into the Afghanistan government will clear the inroads for Pakistani machinations in Kabul, which cannot be tolerated by President Ghani and countries in South and Central Asia.

It is yet not known whether President Trump will approve of the idea of the Taliban factions given an opportunity to share power in Kabul. There is an inherent weakness in the idea as it would embolden the extremists in the region, leading to the extremist ideology getting undue respect and popularity.

There is likelihood of the Trump administration getting tough with extremists both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is why the extremists in Pakistan are feeling unnerved by the change of guard in Washington DC, to be formalised in coming January.

Extremists of all varieties, including India-centric as well as Afghanistan-centric ones, must be upset with the Republican Party’s Trump capturing the White House. There may, however, be some relief for them if the Trump administration follows the traditional Republican approach vis-à-vis Pakistan: make friendly overtures to the Pakistan Army, but keep tightening the screws on the elected civilian government in Islamabad.

The new US Administration may find it difficult to manage the prevailing situation in Pakistan because of the attitudinal problem. Neither the Nawaz Sharif government nor the Pakistan Army appears ready to go after the extremists beyond a certain point.

This explains why the much-trumpeted military campaign against the Taliban in tribal areas could not eliminate these extremists altogether. The government in Islamabad, which has been allowing terrorist outfits like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad to continue with their destructive activity, may be under tremendous pressure from the Trump administration to show concrete results.

Faced with these circumstances, the Nawaz Sharif government has appointed General Bajwa as the new army chief to replace Gen Raheel Shareef on superannuation. Gen Bajwa was the senior most four star general and quiet suitable for the government from different angles. Yet the Pakistan government cannot be sure that he will cooperate with it on every issue.

The trouble with the army chief in Pakistan is that once he occupies the most powerful position in that country, invariably, the top general starts behaving independently, unnerving the civilian government in Islamabad.

Besides Bajwa, candidates who were considered for the post included Chief of General Staff Lt-Gen Zubair Hayat, Multan Corps Commander Lt-Gen Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmed, Bahawalpur Corps Commander Lt-Gen Javed Iqbal Ramday and Lt-Gen Maqsood Ahmed, Pakistan’s representative at the United Nations.

The first test of nerves for the new army chief will come when Pakistan begins to feel pressure from the Trump Administration which can surely be expected owing to the new US President’s known dislike for terrorist and jihadi outfits. He may send out a clear signal to Pakistan to disband these organisations immediately to promote peace in the region and beyond.

Obviously, this may not fit in with the scheme of things of the Pakistan establishment, but it will have little choice. Pakistan may find another development difficult to swallow: President Trump’s likely and clearly visible tilt towards India as seen during the days of President George Bush. The new US Administration may play the India card to contain China, which dreams of emerging as a future super power. If such a scenario becomes a reality, Pakistan and China can be expected to get closer to each other. South Asia and the surrounding areas may, therefore, experience interesting moves by big and small powers in the years to come.

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